Young children who eat the same meals as their parents are far more likely to have healthier diets than those who eat different foods, according to research.
Children who rarely or never eat the same food as their parents had the poorest diets, compared with children who do.
A University of Edinburgh researcher looked at different aspects of family meals of more than 2000 five year olds, drawing upon data from the Growing Up In Scotland study.
Whether children ate the same food as their parents or not had the biggest impact on children’s diets. This was true regardless of the families’ backgrounds.
In light of the new findings, the paper calls for more attention to be paid towards helping parents establish good eating habits in their children’s early years.
Other meal habits had a much smaller impact on diet. Among these, not eating a main meal during the day or at regular times, frequent snacking between meals, eating in the living room or bedroom, and an unpleasant atmosphere during mealtimes were all weakly associated with poorer diets.
Whether children ate with other family members was not significantly linked to children’s dietary quality.
The study also found that firstborn children had healthier diets than second or third born.
While the research found benefits in family meals it also confirmed that mealtimes could be a difficult part of the day.
A quarter said family meals were never or only occasionally enjoyable for everyone. Nearly one in seven (14%) families found that mealtimes were rushed, with a fifth reporting that they never or rarely had the chance to talk during meals.
The paper recommends that government guidelines should be kept simple. It also says that some of the current targets, such as providing up to two grams of salt to children under three, expect parents to monitor nutritional targets in an unrealistic and impractical way.
Offering separate ‘children’s food’ for a main meal may often result in children missing out nutritionally. It is likely that in cases where children eat different foods, they are eating a less nutritious option. This is already known to be the case with kid’s menus in restaurants, so children are best off eating the same foods as their parents.”